The David Stirton Memoirs





The material for the following article was contributed by David Stirton and the article itself was composed by Kate Conway for the regular column, “Pioneer Days in Wellington”, which appeared in the Guelph Mercury newspaper between March and November 1899.


Mr. David Stirton




The Cholera Scare of 1834


Mr. Stirton thinks he might say something in regard to the general health of the early settlers.  For the first two or three years quite a considerable amount of fever and ague prevailed.  This may surprise some who see the present dry character of the country, but the surroundings were different in early times.  The first settlers put up their houses where the well water would be easily secured, and consequently often built in low situations.  They also used surface water, which was impregnated with an immense mass of decaying matter.  In consequence of these two mistakes, both calculated to bring about fever and ague, the disease was quite prevalent.


In addition to this, the only place where people could go and work and be paid in cash was on the Welland and Desjardins canals.  In the early days of the Guelph settlement, many of the settlers were glad to go there and earn a little money to pay off pressing obligations.  These canals were being carried through dense marshes of stagnant water, and not infrequently the men brought home a dose of fever and ague.


In connection with the ague, Mr. Stirton relates the following of a grand old Irishman named McGinnis who was Mr. Stirton’s neighbours:


Mr. McGinnis had four grown sons and they all went directly to the canal.  On reaching the country they secured lodgings in one of the old-fashioned log houses with a stone chimney, the jamb of which came out about six feet from the wall.  Mr. McGinnis related his experience as follows: “We all had the ague.  The bhoys were shakin’ and the wimmen were shakin’ and mesilf was shakin’ and we were all shakin’ together.  By and bye, I thought I’d put a shtop to the shakin’ for it was mesilf thought I would shake to pieces.  I knew the toime the shake would be coming on, and I braced myself against the wall with my knees to the jamb.  “Now, come on with your shakes; Oi’m ready fur yez,” says Oi.  But the first thing I knew the chimney was shakin’, then the house was shakin’, and the whole thing was shakin’!”


As the clearances extended the ague disappeared and the general health of the settlement was very good.


In 1832, the cholera visited Britain and it was not to be expected that emigrants leaving where it was prevalent could escape bringing it.  Some died on the passage, but the epidemic became general as they entered the St. Lawrence.  As many emigrants came from cholera-infected ships to Toronto and Hamilton, the disease was very prevalent in those cities.


Guelph escaped comparatively, for, although there was a large immigration the year of the cholera, there were but few cases. The Gillis family, who lived a half mile from the cemetery, expected relatives from Scotland.  In the expected party were the father, two brothers and a sister-in-law of Mrs. Gillis.  The father and one brother died on the way.  The other brother and his wife came to Hamilton, where they left their luggage and then came on to the Scotch Block.  A brother of Mrs. Gillis, named Henderson, with a nephew, Donald Gillis, went to Hamilton to bring up the baggage, among which was the clothing of the men who had died of cholera.


As has been stated, the Brock Road was frequently almost impassable, and in going over one long crossway a box fell from the wagon and burst open.  It must have contained some of the cholera-infected clothing.  The young man assisted his uncle in replacing the articles and they reached home.  He was taken ill at two o’clock in the morning and was dead before ten that day.


This caused considerable excitement in the settlement.  There were, however, no more cases, and the cholera never had an epidemic character.


In the neighbouring village of Galt, in the summer of 1834, there was an epidemic of cholera, the most fatal, perhaps, experienced in all of Canada.  It was very hot weather at the time.  The following is from Hon. James’ Young’s History of Galt:


“Amusements in the nature of travelling companies were then almost unknown in the new settlement of upper Canada, and the announcement that a menagerie of wild beasts would exhibit in Galt on the 28th of July caused universal interest far and near.  For nearly twenty miles around, the coming exhibition was talked about until it became a topic of absorbing interest.


“When the day arrived there was, considering the circumstances, a large attendance, people coming from Waterloo, Beverly, Woolwich, Blenheim, and other places more distant than could have been attracted by anything less exciting than a menagerie was in those early times.  The day proved intensely warm, in fact a regular “scorcher”, and from all accounts the collection of wild animals was meagre and the dens and their occupants were extremely filthy.  The odour was so marked as to detract seriously from the comfort of the audience, and the entertainment was hardly over when rumours began to prevail that the company had brought the much dreaded disease of cholera with them to the village.


The report first arose from the illness of one of the showmen.  He had been brought to the village a day or two before the menagerie arrived, and fears that his complaint was cholera induced some of the villagers to go to Mr. Shade, who was the only magistrate at the time, and ask him to consider whether the exhibition should not be prevented.  Mr. Shade, however, doubted whether he had the power to do so, and seemed, besides, rather disinclined to interfere with an exhibition which appeared to add importance to the village, and would certainly cause the circulation of a good deal of money.  After examining the showman, Dr. Miller pronounced his complaint to be real Asiatic cholera.  Shortly afterwards, the Doctor said to Mr. William Buchanan, of Branchton, who had been at the show from the country: “Go home!  You’ll hear more of this.  That man’s dying of Asiatic cholera!”


“His fears, unfortunately, proved too true.  That frightful plague, in its worst form, had been introduced by the menagerie, and already the seeds of death were developing in many of those who had attended the fatal entertainment.


The exhibition took place on Monday, and by Wednesday night and Thursday the cholera was raging with almost unparalleled malignity and fatality.  The harrowing scenes, which occurred, can never be erased from the memories of those who passed through them.  The agony of the stricken, the swiftness of death, the crude board coffins and the hasty burials, in some cases within a few minutes after the last breath was drawn, turned the recently hopeful village into a charnel-house from which many fled in despair, whilst all but a few were paralysed with fear.


Chiefly before Friday night, but certainly within a week, nearly one fifth of all the villagers had fallen victims to the plague, whilst not a few from the country, who were present at the exhibition, had also succumbed to the ruthless destroyer.  Dr. Miller, who had seen one hundred persons per day die of cholera in Montreal, declared that he had never seen a place of the same population as Galt suffer so much, nor the disease appear so virulent.  Such widespread mortality in so small a community and in so brief a space of time recalled the ravages of the plague in London and is almost unprecedented on this continent.


Notwithstanding the proximity of West Puslinch to Galt, and that numbers from Puslinch had gone to visit the menagerie, the disease broke out in one family only, two members of whom died.  This was a family by the name of Smith and the two bodies were buried on the top of the hill on the leading road from Mr. Stirton’s old neighbourhood to Hespeler.


The family of John Cockburn, together with Thos. Todd and Francis Beatty, came to Canada in this year, and while they lay off at Toronto, Mrs. Todd, mother of the late Thos. Todd, and sister of Mrs. Francis Beatty, died of cholera, but there were no more cases in either family.  It is seen that Guelph was particularly fortunate in thus escaping any serious ravages from the prevailing disease.






The preceding article appeared in the remarkable scrapbooks of Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner, volume 149, pages 12-13.  As of May 2003, the Gardiner scrapbooks could be viewed in the Special Collections Department of the Hamilton Public Library, Hamilton Ontario.


Mr. Herbert Fairbairn Gardiner




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